Saturday, October 22, 2011

Readathon: Updates One and Two


1)Where are you reading from today?

My students' midterms!  And some theory on the teaching of writing.  (It's not quite my usual fun reading, but it must be done.  And if I'm good, I can pick up some fiction later.

2)Three random facts about me…

Erm...1.  I love listening to This American Life.  I'm catching up on old episodes now.
2.  My cat is lying across my feet, trapping me in place.  (I think this will help to keep me reading)
3.  Part of my readathon may involve rocking to the audiobook of Chime.

3)How many books do you have in your TBR pile for the next 24 hours?

More than I can actually read in 24 hours.

4)Do you have any goals for the read-a-thon (i.e. number of books, number of pages, number of hours, or number of comments on blogs)?

Just to do more reading than I've had time for over the last several weeks.

5)If you’re a veteran read-a-thoner, any advice for people doing this for the first time?

Mix in some graphic novels, short stories, articles, picturebooks or other short texts to keep you motivated.  SRSLY!  It helps!



I'm still here and I'm still reading!  So, far I did some reading that was prep-work for the classes I teach next week.  

Part of what I have been preparing for my students is a discussion of young adult fiction book covers and they way certain themes, colors,images seem to trend in and out.  There have been blog posts about this in the past:  how dark covers are, the focus on faces, puffy dresses, flowers, etc.

The cover trend I'm adding to the list is underwater scenes (AKA girls drowning):

Now I'm going to switch directions and focus on some grading.  It's proven to be a VERY slow process.

Wish me luck!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

REVIEW: Saint Training

Fixmer, E.  (2010).  Saint Training.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Zonderkidz.

233 pages.

Appetizer:  It's the spring of 1967 and sixth grader Mary Clare O'Brian has begun to write letters to the Mother Superior of a convent asking for advice.  Mary Clare has the goal of becoming a saint.  But with all the daily complications of having to look after her many brothers and sisters, her mother's fascination with reading The Feminine Mystique and a competition to write an essay on "What a religious vocation means to me...," Mary Clare is having trouble living up to her saintly aspirations.

She starts to realize how complicated life can be.  Not only in terms of being good, but also in terms of her own family.  Her mom, who is pregnant for the umpteenth time, wants to do other work than caring for her many kids at home and Mary Clare is left to do a lot of the work of caring for her siblings and wondering how her family can afford to care for another child.  One of her brothers wants to enlist to go to Vietnam with his best friend, while another older brother wants to get status as a conscientious objector to the war.

The author, Elizabeth Fixmer, does an excellent job of presenting Mary Clare's faith as she goes from blind obedience and making deals with God to questioning aspects of Catholicism, earning "saint points" and beginning to view how complicated issues of faith in the real world can be.

For a reader who might not be very religious, a lot of the Catholicism could be a little overwhelming.  I also felt like an older reader or adult would have to explain a bit about feminism for a younger reader to get the book.  (In fact, the only aspect of this book that might not have to be discussed, is the historical setting.  This book was a little too history--light for my personal tastes.  Especially since the opening paragraph is about racial tensions and how Mary Clare imagined herself providing support to a black student she imagined being integrated at her Catholic school.  I felt like a promise made early in the story was dropped, allowed to roll under a chair and forgotten until the very end.)

My favorite part of Saint Training was the exchange of letters between Mary Clare and Sister Monica.  As the story continued, Mary Clare began to ask a lot of important questions.  I found this very engaging.

But toward the end of the book, this also became frustrating, because Mary Clare revealed major plot developments in her letters without them being mentioned in the narration before.  I found myself flipping back and forth between pages, wondering if I had missed something.

Overall, I liked that Saint Training took on issues of faith and social justice.  I liked Mary Clare's childlike faith and the way that she took on adult concerns and worries over her family.  But I did find some of the religion and jumps in the narrative to be a bit overwhelming at times.

Dinner Conversation:

"March 25, 1967

Dear Reverend Mother.

My name is Mary Clare O'Brian.  I am in sixth grade and I am writing because I want to become a Good Shepherd nun.  I like the Good Shepherd nuns best because you work with unwed mothers and their babies.  I love little babies." (p. 7)

"Mary Clare finished her Social Studies test and turned it upside down to wait for the rest of the class. It was easy, mostly easy, and on the subject that Mary Clare had heard a lot about at home around the dinner table:  civil rights.  She couldn't believe that Negroes had to sit on the back of the bus in the South and even drink from different water fountains.  They were fighting for basic rights, especially the right to vote.  Mary Clare liked to imagine that a Negro girl entered her very class at Saint Maria Goretti School. She would show her around, become her friend, even hold the drinking fountain on for her.
Now her face scrunched into a yawn she fought to control.  She was tired from being up almost all night--first listening to her parents fight, then praying for the perfect plan to make things better for her family.  After she came up with the perfect plan, she couldn't sleep at all.
She was going to become a saint."  (p. 11)

"Lord, help my family.  Please, please give us enough money so Mom and Dad can be happy again.
She stopped.  She was sick of this prayer.  Why wasn't God answering?  HE used to answer her prayers all the time."  (p. 15)

"Now she knew the problem:  God would only listen to her if her soul was pure.  If she was going to make her mother happy again, she would have to be a saint right away.
She made a plan.  She would study, she would practice saint-like behavior, and she would become a nun.  Many of the girl saints had been nuns before being sainted, so she figured becoming a nun was the perfect stepping stone to her real goal.  She'd be so darned good she wouldn't have a thing to confess on Saturdays.
Mary Clare explained the deal to God.  If you take care of my family--give them enough money, make my parents happy...I'll become a saint.  She repeated it several times in case it was hard for God to hear through all of her sins." (p. 16)

"Don't just tell them what you think they want to hear, Mary Clare.  Don't get into the roles everybody expects from a woman--where your identity is what the Church tells you it should be.  'God's servant, and God's bride'...that's all part of the feminine mystique," she said.  "Everybody knows what nuns do and the vows they take.  Go inside your heart and tell them who you are."
Mary Clare was confused.  She didn't know what the feminine mystique was, and she was pretty sure that to win this contest she had to pretty much say what the judges wanted to hear, but she did want to be real."  (p. 79)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Myracle, L.  (2004).  ttyl.  New York:  Amulet Books.

209 pages.

Appetizer:  The first in an often censored series, ttyl chronicles the IM messages between Zoe, Angela and Maddie; three best friends who are trying to navigate the start of their sophomore year.

Zoe is dealing with an overbearing mother as she explores her spirituality by attending church with her favorite teacher, who may have his own intentions by spending time with her.  Angela is navigating a romantic relationship:  whether she can trust her new boyfriend, Rob, and whether he is "the one" to have sex with for the first time.  Maddie, the most pessimistic of the three, battles the frustration of becoming a frenemy of a popular girl named Jana.  Despite their differing concerns, problems and jealousies, the three girls struggle to maintain their friendship.

From page one, I was impressed by how well Myracle managed to present characterization and differing voices among her three protagonists.  This was helped by each of them typing in different fonts and regularly taking online personality quizzes.  (I remember taking similar quizzes throughout high school.  Oh, memories.)

Despite these efforts, it did take me a little bit of extra time to ease into the story and to figure out characterizations.  I did notice there was a little bit of resistance whenever I had to put the book down.  But each time I picked it back up and eased back into the characterizations, it was hard to stop reading.  (Which is about as good as it gets.)

I decided to finally read ttyl because--alas several weeks too late for banned book week--this was the week to discuss censorship in my literature course.  Since the ttyl series topped the 2009 top-ten list of most challenged books, I'd been curious about its content.  I wondered if it was the fact that the story was structured entirely as instant messages that contributed to the trouble.

It turns out the first book takes on a lot of topics that may be sensitive; like underaged drinking, (mild) dirty humor, female characters being critical of each other and referring to girls they don't like as "sluts," and discussion of pubic hair, lubricant, etc.  At various points, characters contemplate losing their virginity, are critical of religion or consider having a romantic (and creepy!) relationship with a teacher.

I firmly believe the vast majority of fourteen or fifteen-year-olds at the very least have contemplated these issues, overheard discussions or jokes like these, if not discussed them with their friends.

The student-teacher romantic relationship did make me more than a little uncomfortable, especially since (vague spoiler!) the teens don't report the situation to the administration.  But still, it was great that the book included discussion of such a concern and showed how a friend can provide support to a conflicted and confused teenager.

While I think ttyl is a great read for the novel's intended audience, Myracle is also famous for writing some younger, middle grade series.  I could see a parent of a ten-year-old girl who just finished reading Myracle's Eleven and going on to read ttyl getting upset.  I say "parent" intentionally.  TTYL is an unlikely book to be assigned to an entire class, because of this, I think any young reader who has a choice to read it, but isn't ready for its subject matter, will self-censor and put the book down if they're uncomfortable.

Dinner Conversation:



  (p. 122)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

REVIEW: Shakespeare Bats Cleanup (It's like a better sequel to Love That Dog than Hate That Cat was! Yay sports + poetry!)

Koertge, R.  (2003).  Shakespeare Bats Cleanup.  Cambridge, MA:  Candlewick Press.

116 pages.

Appetizer:  14-year-old Kevin Boland wants nothing more than to play baseball.  But after he is diagnosed with mono, there's no way he'll be able to play ball or go back to school for a looooooooong time.  Stuck in his room and bored, Kevin is anything but excited when his dad (a writer) gives him a blank notebook.  His dad notes:
"You're gonna have a lot of time on your hands.  Maybe you'll feel like writingsomething down" (p. 1).
And from that, a novel in verse is born.

While stuck in bed and later as he starts to attend baseball games again, Kevin works on writing various forms of poetry; from haiku, to blank verse, to elegies, to sonnets.  What's more, he goes back and revises his poems, showing his process and the importance of revision.  (Yay!  Can I hear a cheer for revision!  Wat Wat!)

Also, as Kevin battles mono and misses playing baseball, both he and his dad are dealing with a much larger loss; that of Kevin's mom.  But as they deal with their grief, Kevin begins to see the possibility of another type of joy:  His first real girlfriend.  A girl named Mira notices that Kevin writes poetry.  Torn between wanting to tell her the truth about what he's writing and not wanting to seem like one of those "sensitive" guys, Kevin tries to figure out how to get to know Mira better.

I'll admit, during the first half of the story, I wasn't too crazy about Shakespeare Bats Cleanup.  Kevin was hung-up on missing baseball and he had rigid ideas about masculinity that didn't exactly rock my world.  Then Mira was introduced.  And I loved her character.  She added a lot of humor and brought out a fun dynamic between Kevin and his father as they start to date.  As Kevin and his dad prepare to pick up Mira to go to a poetry reading, Kevin writes:

Dad comes downstairs in shorts  
and Pumas.  I ask him to change.  On the way
to Mira's he says, "Now I'm nervous."  (p. 82) 

Plus, Mira and her family added a multicultural dimension to the story.  Kevin, who is white, begins to entertain thoughts of learning Spanish to better communicate with Mira's extended family, some baseball players and to be able to translate poetry by Octavio Paz.

Overall, I felt like Shakespeare Bats Cleanup is a slightly older version of Love That Dog, that will specifically appeal to boys who *still* aren't completely convinced of the awesomeness of poetry.

Apparently there's a sequel, called Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs.  I'll read it...but I'll probably wait for the paperback version, which should be available by mid-March.

Dinner Conversation:

"Then Dad comes in and says, "The doctor
called.  Your tests came back.  You've got
"So I can't play ball."
He pats my knee.  "You can't even go to
school, Kevin.  You need to take it real easy."
He hands me a journal, one of those marbly
black-and-white ones he likes.
"You're gonna have a lot of time on your
hands.  Maybe you'll feel like writing
something down."  (p. 1)

"Why am I writing down the middle
of the page?
It kind of looks like poetry, but no way
is it poetry.  It's just stuff." (p. 5)

"I'm just going to fool around a little,
see what's what poetry-wise" (p. 5).

"My name is Kevin Boland.
I live in Los Angeles (a suburb, actually).
I'm fourteen years old, I love baseball,
and I haven't got a girlfriend.
I'm just writing because I'm bored.
Thank God nobody's going to read it."  (p. 12)

"That book I've been reading
is big on revision, which means, by
the way, not just doing something over
but seeing it again.  That's kind of cool." (p. 23)

"'I'm a writer.'"  That's a cool thing to say.
I don't mean I am, but I'm not a baseball
player either.
Not anymore."  (p. 28)

Tasty Rating:  !!!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

REVIEW: Jenny Green's Killer Junior Year (I was not impressed)

Belasen, A., &; Osborn, J. (2008). Jenny Green's Killer Junior Year.  New York:  Simon Pulse.

284 pages.

So, when I first started typing this review, I accidentally put 'yar' instead of 'year.' As though 11th grader, Jenny, had become a pirate. (Note: I would read that book. I may be out of high school, but I'm still looking for ways to transition to a career in piracy.)

Appetizer: After a sucky sophomore year, Jewish American Princess (or--I kid you not--'Jap' as she prefers to use *shudders*) Jenny Green decides to leave her Long Island public school in the hope of finding cooler people and "the one" (AKA Prince Charming) at boarding school.  She has a good idea of who her prince will be:  a boy named Josh who had transfered previously.

Jenny settles into Molson Academy, navigates having to live in a house of artists/hippies, finds a friend, orchestrates running into her prince, finds a way to cheat in her AP calc class, considers losing her virginity and flirts with her favorite professor.

But all is not perfect.

She starts to realize that Josh may not be as wonderful as she thought he was and after he drunkenly attacks her, Jenny will have to do things she'd never considered before:  become a killer.

But what starts out as self-defense, quickly evolves to murder as other men wrong her.

I wouldn't say I *hated* this book.  I could say I disliked it.  But, I think saying I didn't get it would be gentler.  From the first page, I hated Jenny.  She was shallow and judgmental.  So, when she started killing other characters, with seemingly almost no regret, I was not inclined to care.

Eventually guilt and potential consequences do present themselves, but by then, I was just reading to get the book done.

On top of that, the book repeatedly refers to 9-11 and a potential school shooting at Molson to explain some of Jenny's choices and to imply that the crazy-screwed-up world is somehow contributing to her choices.  While I appreciate the effort to show the subtle pressures influencing Jenny, my reaction as I was reading was just to say "WTF?!  What the heck is this doing in this book?!"  I felt like Jenny Green's Killer Junior Year was attempting to make some cultural or feminist commentary, but I just failed to follow it.

Oh, and this book is supposedly humorous.

I didn't find it very funny.

Was I missing something?

Also, aside from the killing, there are also a handful of pretty sexually explicit scenes.

Dinner Conversation:

"'Twas the end of a long and bitter sophomore year. 'Twas. I just really wanted to use that word. I promise I won't use it again; this ain't Dickens. Seriously, though, sophomore year totally sucked. I broke my toe and couldn't be in the school production of Grease, Doug Lapidus took a picture of a huge zit on my nose and broadcast it on Facebook, and that bitch Veronica Cohen stole my prom date Mark Leibowitz" (p. 3).

"Still, none of my experiences in high school could have prepared me for the utter lameness of the guys I'd soon meet in boarding school. I repeat, and seriously, feel free to scribble this somewhere while you're reading: None of my experiences in high school could have prepared me for the utter lameness of the guys I'd soon meet in boarding school. Pretty please, keep this in mind before you blame me for everything that happens in the next however many pages" (pp. 5-6).

"It proved fairly easy to track down Josh Beck.  Some random girl knew him and said he was usually at the school gym around five.
Okay, I'm totally gonna sound like a stalker now, but I basically camped outside the gym until I spotted Josh." (p. 41)

"Memories flooded my feeble mind--memories of 9/11.  My family and I were supposed to go into the city the night before to watch a Broadway play and stay at a hotel.  It was a tradition.  We called them "Green Apple Nights," and Daddy let us take off from school and everything.
Anyway, Daddy had a friend in the towers that we were going to visit the morning of 9/11, and the only reason it didn't happen is because Abby got food poisoning and everything was canceled.  Daddy's friend died in the attacks.  It took me years to recover from the fact that I, too, almost died that day.  And here death was again, knocking on the door but not coming inside.  It chilled me to my core.  What the F was up with September?" (p. 53)

"I wanted to get away with it.  Beneath the anger and the self-defense lay something primal, something pleasurable even.  As I'd watched Josh squirm, a feeling came over me I can only describe now as empowerment.  Watching this creep die suddenly filled me with a force I'd never known myself to possess.  It was all mine.  I was Supergirl" (p. 68)

Tasty Rating:  !!


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